This is what conferences could look like in the age of the coronavirus: long, thin tables with water pitchers, but almost no people.
Most industry conferences in Boston have been canceled or have gone fully virtual since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. But not this one: a series of life sciences meetings this week at the Wyndham hotel on Blossom Street with 150-plus participants from various states and countries. Nearly all these guests are attending electronically, but conference host Enal Razvi still invited some attendees to physically visit the ballroom on the hotel’s 15th floor, where the conference is being held. About 10 did so, Razvi said, well within the state’s 25-person cap for indoor gatherings during this phase of the economic reopening.
Razvi, managing director of Select Biosciences, the conference’s organizer, said there’s something missing in a fully virtual conference — like a spark that can be ignited by people in the same field asking questions of each other in the same room.
“It anchors the conference, it’s a place where you can start discussions,” Razvi, who is based in California, said of the physical space. “My job as an organizer is to stimulate people so they talk and they engage. We’re trying to do it as best as we can, given the circumstances.”
This week, Razvi is hosting four overlapping conferences in the Wyndham hotel, with topics such as “Innovations in Microfluidics” and “3D Printing and Biofabrication.” He plans to take a similar hybrid approach to a conference he is hosting in Rotterdam next month.
“This pandemic, it’s a huge challenge for us in the conference business but it’s also an opportunity,” he said. “It allows us to reinvent our conference model.”
Long-term, he suspects the hybrid approach, with many attendees tuning in virtually, will play a major role in conferences even after an effective COVID vaccine is widely available.
Martha Sheridan, chief executive of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said so far the hybrid approach has been quite limited among Boston’s hotels, but she sees significant potential in the concept. Sheridan was part of a group of hoteliers and tourism officials that asked the Baker administration last month to allow meetings of up to 100 people to take place indoors. Governor Charlie Baker settled on the 25-person cap, with up to 100 allowed outside, at first, during this phase of the recovery. He recently cut the outdoor limit in half, to 50 people.
Even small meetings can make a big difference for a hotel, she said.
“I don’t think hotel meetings should be conflated with private gatherings at people’s homes, with less monitoring,” Sheridan said. “For our hotels to survive, they really need meetings.”